Toddler Behaviour: Food Intolerance

Gavin’s a picky eater.  He has been ever since he started balking at solids around about eight months.  I would even venture to say that he’s almost as bad as Leta on Dooce – at least that’s how bad it feels like these days.  Gavin has a gag reflex that would put a Bulimic to shame.  I kid you not!  We can never force him to eat something he doesn’t want to.  We can’t tell him off while he’s eating either or that will be the last bite he’ll take.  The moment the food touches the tip of his tongue, he’ll cough and out comes every last bite that we have so painstakingly fed him over the past hour or so.

Sometimes the cough sounds fake, but sometimes it is so convincing you would almost believe that it was real if it weren’t for the fact that he ALWAYS throws up after we’ve tried to coerce him into eating something he doesn’t want or he’s been told off severely by Daddy.

Lately – I would say somewhere within the time frame of his increasing jealousy regarding his brother – his gag reflex has been working over time.  The feeding issue has gotten so bad that he refuses to eat even though we’ve practically starved him of snacks and in between meals.  It has gotten to the point where my FIL remarked that Gavin must be a saint because he lives on nothing but air.  It isn’t entirely true, because he does eat the food I pack for school, but he doesn’t eat anything after he comes home.  He rarely eats dinner even though I’ve stopped serving him PediaSure when he fails to eat dinner.  He only eats if the meal agrees with him.

They say that children will eat when they are hungry, but I’m beginning to wonder with the number of dinners Gavin has been skipping.  I know we haven’t always handled the food issues very well with Gavin and I’m sure there were a lot of things that should have been done differently.  I often find myself going around and around in my head wondering what we should have done instead to get Gavin to develop better eating habits.  And now that we’ve picked up all the bad habits, just how exactly can we get back on track?  We’ve cut out most of the junk food – barring the occasional treat for special occasions and good behaviour (which hasn’t been very often lately) – but we still end up on the battle field whenever it comes to meal time (unless it is food that he likes).

Okay, so throw it at me – anything, everything, criticisms, whatever…  If it works, I’ll be eternally grateful.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

12 thoughts on “Toddler Behaviour: Food Intolerance

  1. School food:
    – sandwiches: jam, nutella and/or peanut butter. I also tried cheese and it went well the first two days and then it started coming home uneaten.
    – a small tub of yoghurt
    – two muesli bars
    – a small packet of Milo
    – water

    That’s the usual. Sometimes I throw in any of the following if I don’t have all of the above:
    – boro (that Japanese small round egg biscuits)
    – animal crackers
    – vitagen
    – a bread roll from one of the bread shops
    – a 250ml packet of milk

    What food does he like?
    – Instant noodles (always a hit)
    – bah ku teh (usually a hit)
    – wan ton noodles (sometimes)
    – chicken (depends on preparation)
    – pork (depends on preparation)
    – fish (depends on mood)
    – bread (can depend on mood, preparation, etc.)
    – milk (cow’s milk is always a hit, formula is hit and miss)
    – breast milk (always a hit)

    No. of milk feeds – I used to offer him milk when he wouldn’t eat his meals. Nowadays none unless you count the nursing time at night before bed and when he wakes up in the middle of the night.

    Weight is normal and he appears healthy and well-fed although I can’t imagine why given his manner of eating… For me the gripe is more his aversion for trying new foods and eating proper meals.

    They say he’ll outgrow it, I’m still waiting…


  2. Shen-Li,

    I remember watching “The House of Tiny Tearaways” with Dr Tanya Byron on Foxtel. I felt that the way she taught/counselled parents in dealing with various issues they faced with their child, including fussy eating, is very helpful. I’m not sure if you feel the same but if you can watch this programme from the internet, you may be able to see if her advice are helpful to you. If I’m not mistakened, she also wrote a book in the same title & has a chapter on dealing with fussy eating. I don’t know if you would be able to find a copy back in KL to have a look.


  3. Thanks for the suggestion. I will definitely it up – anything to better my son’s appreciation for food is good. Also, I wouldn’t want to make the same mistakes again with no. 2…


  4. Overdue reply…
    Perhaps he likes food packed in a lunch box?
    Some children like well-presented food, so you may try making cute bento sets for him, even at home. E.g. Thomas bento box, with rice balls using train-shaped cutters.

    Toddlers are also grazers, so may prefer to eat finger food regularly through the day than sit down for 3 meals.

    Fruits & vegetables seem missing from his meals. If he doesn’t like them, you may need to ‘hide’ small portions in mashed rice balls or vege pasta, where the taste of the vege won’t be obvious.

    Offer interesting healthy snacks round the day, e.g. homemade frozen fruit popsicles / ice-cream.

    I’d also not offer any sweets / chocolates that provide empty calories and spoil his appetite.

    A child would want to eat when he is hungry, so got to let him initiate when he is hungry too.

    Good luck! 🙂


  5. I pack his school food in Thomas lunch boxes but he’s never had a problem eating food I send to school. Usually that’s yoghurt, sandwiches (peanut butter, nutella and/or jam on wholemeal bread). I don’t even have to cut them into cute animal shapes – although I did once and he got really excited about it until the novelty wore out.

    He likes to play with his rice at dinner – spooning soup into his rice bowl but he doesn’t eat the rice or drink the soup. He just does his experiments and then he’s done with dinner – which makes my MIL cross. He’s obviously not really a rice boy although he will eat certain types of noodles. To be honest, I doubt he would eat train-shaped rice. He once told my SIL he wanted blue cupcakes. She made a batch for him – he took one bite and refused to eat the rest.

    He eats grapes (only the purple ones). He used to eat papaya when he was really young. He sometimes eats durian depending on the quality. He occasionally eats oranges and strawberries. He’s also a little touch and go with mangoes. The problem I have with fruits is that when he’s sick, my MIL will tell him not to eat them because they are “hong” and they make his cough worse, etc. Then I have to “unbrainwash” him by constantly telling him it is okay for him to eat them.

    Sometimes I’m very anti- all these Chinese health beliefs because I have such a hard time feeding him, I don’t really need people telling him to stop eating the only things he will eat just because they think it’s bad for him when he’s sick. For instance, there were a lot of complaints about him not eating when he was sick. When he started eating duck, we were told not to give him too much duck because it is “hong” and he’s sick. But then it’s okay for them to feed him ice cream later. Honestly feel like banging my head against a brick wall.

    Gavin won’t eat veggies – haven’t been able to slip anything to him. He scrutinises his food before he lets you put it into his mouth. Sometimes he’ll pick up things we’ve hidden into a mouthful and stop eating altogether. I used to spend ages trying to make new and interesting foods for him. I followed those recipes for hiding veggies, recipes from books that were supposed to work well with kids – none of it worked. I was the one who ended up eating the stuff I made.

    I don’t give him sweets. I also take them away when anyone gives them to him. We’ve already stopped the chocolate except on special occasions and when he’s been really good. Even then he only gets like a cube of Cadbury as a bribe.

    I think you might be right about the grazing thing. It’s not easy to implement because my ILs are a typical 3-square meals chinese family. I used to give him regular snacks then my MIL would tell me she reckons he’s refusing dinner because I fed him too much earlier for his snack. But now, even if I don’t feed him a snack, he still skips dinner.


  6. I’m linking the comments related to sitting in the highchair here:

    Seems like there are several issues you are facing. The biggest barrier being differences between you and your ILs in handling them. I’m sure you wish for more autonomy in handling your children.

    As a child, I disliked eating white rice, hated vegetables (loved oily meat dishes), hardly ate fruits and took a long time to finish my meals. I turned vegetarian 2 years ago, partly after realising how unhealthy my diet was.

    Some children are plain picky, perhaps taking after one or both parents. For e.g., I know of a Dad who goes “Yucks, cucumbers / tomatoes / carrots!” at a restaurant and removes them from his plate to others. His toddler follows suit and is a picky and slow eater too.

    If he doesn’t like rice, then try colorful vege pasta, noodles, and other grains. I use vege stock (sweetcorn, carrot/gei ji/red dates, potato/onion/celery) to cook very fragrant and tasty brown rice porridge for my boy. If all types of rice don’t work, then try steamed / baked sweet potatoes and potatoes as replacement.

    Instead of instant noodles, there are easy-to-cook colorful organic vege noodles at Country Farm Organics. May find them at Jusco’s organic section too.

    For cough, I’d avoid oranges, watermelons, bananas, durians, chicken meat, eggs, chocolates, roasted nuts, fried stuff, cold drinks and ice-cream, so I won’t offer them. Most other food should be fine. For sore throat without cough, I’d actually eat ice-cream to cool myself down. Ha!

    Just made a tub of red bean ice-cream recently, great during hot afternoons. Only need red beans, milk, ice and rock sugar, healthy and delicious. For kids, I’d rotate red beans with other fruits such as bananas.

    If Gavin helps prepare finger foods, would he eat more? E.g. oatmeal cookies, muffins. Just make small batches and let him cut the cookies into trains/other shapes using the cookie cutter. Can practice his fine motor skills at the same time.

    My general idea is to get the kids enjoy food and the process of preparing food. Positive experiences are needed to help them enjoy meal-times. When introducing solid foods to my boy, I read that my task is to offer the food and get him interested. If he really doesn’t want to eat, I’d stop and try again at the next meal. Neither do I offer junk food. There is a mother who practises self-weaning and her boy took solids at about 2.5 years old, with a smooth transition.

    Keep trying and remain relaxed if he doesn’t eat much yet.

    In a few months, Gareth would be started on semi-solids. Hope he’d be easy-going at meal-times. Perhaps Gavin would then be interested in what his brother is eating. Good luck! 🙂


  7. The food issue has always been a very touchy topic. You know what it’s like with a typical Chinese family – food is everything. A child that doesn’t like to eat strikes a very sore chord.

    That said, I honestly don’t know why Gavin is so picky with food. He refuses to try new things and always says he doesn’t like them even before he has tasted it. He’s strange for a kid. Most kids like eggs and bananas – Gavin won’t touch either of them. I have offered him bananas so many times and gotten rejected every time. Even if I blend fruit mixes with banana, he’ll smell the banana and he won’t touch it.

    Gavin’s sense of smell is very astute. It’s like my hubby’s sense of smell – far to keen to slip anything past him. I think this is largely the problem we have with a lot of food – if he doesn’t like the smell, he won’t go near it.

    I also blame hubby for Gavin being so picky with his food. I once made fried rice with carrots, peas and corn. Hubby picked out all the carrots, peas and corn before he would eat it!

    At meal times, we eat brown rice – we switched from white rice after my FIL was diagnosed with diabetes. Gavin should be used to brown rice, but he won’t eat it. Tells me he doesn’t like it. White rice is also touch and go – most of the time he won’t eat it but he does eat a few grains from time to time. I think it has to do with the texture of the rice – how soft or hard it is – and also on his mood.

    As for noodles – I have tried alternatives and they have all failed. I even tried cooking instant noodles with my MIL’s soup and it failed. Once Gavin took a mouthful, he would stop eating the rest.

    Hehe… I eat all that stuff with or without cough. Did you know that dark chocolate is actually a cough suppressant? It contains theobromine which is what they use in cough mixtures to suppress coughing. Milk chocolate also contains theobromine, but only dark chocolate contains sufficient quantities to make a difference.

    My SIL is a chef and has let Gavin help her cook before. I thought it would make him more eager to eat, too, but it didn’t make much of a difference. We’ve tried oatmeal cookies – fail. In fact, many other cookies have failed, too. Gavin is selective even with junk food.

    I didn’t like vegetables when I was young, too. I’d eat whatever my mother put on my plate, but I would never take it myself. I didn’t start appreciating vegetables until I was in highschool. I learned about nutrition and that’s when I started taking notice of my diet.

    I was vegetarian for several years before I got pregnant with Gavin. It was more of a protest against eating meat than for health reasons. The health benefits was a side effect. I also noticed that when I started eating meat again, I wouldn’t be able to eat much because it made me physically ill. I think eating meat taints our tastebuds. When I was vegetarian, a lot of plainer foods tasted really good to me. Now that I eat meat, I find that I don’t enjoy those foods as much any more. I also remember that the smell of KFC would make me ill when I was vegetarian, now it doesn’t bother me any more. The reason I went back to eating meat was because I was craving it so badly when I was pregnant with Gavin. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

    I do think that Gareth may be able to be a positive influence on Gavin when he starts eating. I noticed that when we were having dinner with Gavin’s god family, he ate pumpkin soup because his god brother was eating it. It was quite amusing to watch – his godmother would offer it to him and he would take a mouthful and screw up his face. When we asked him if he liked it, he would nod his head even though his expression said otherwise.

    I think I’m less worried about his eating than the rest of the family. The only reason I fret is because I get so much grief about it from the rest of the family.


  8. Shen-Li,

    I have a theory & I hope you will not take offence to what I’m going to say.

    I think Gavin is a fussy eater due to several reasons. One of them, in my opinion, could be because your ILs make it into a big issue & may give Gavin the impression that they are forcing him to eat. Children are very sensitive & Gavin might just retain his sense of independence by being picky with his food. Children cannot be forced/coerced to do things & the only way they know how to retain control in their lives is to refuse to eat.

    Another reason, in my view, is that dinner time for him is so tense that he just avoids eating dinner altogether.

    The other reason, I theorize, is that perhaps he thinks that since his father is a picky eater, he follows suit.

    Now that the theories are out in the open, I regret to say that I understand how difficult your position is & I don’t think you would be able to overcome this until perhaps Gareth starts eating?


  9. Oooh… I love dark chocolates! Glad to know that it’s fine to eat them even when coughing.

    Perhaps, send Gavin to his god-family for more meals. Saves you all the trouble.

    When my boy first started dinner, I fed him half to one hour before the ‘official’ dinner-time. This way, it is just us (avoiding unnecessary advice), we are more relaxed and he is less distracted, having the chance to enjoy his meal. When I observed that he was ready, I fed him during dinner-time and he still eats well.

    Perhaps you could try this with Gareth, or even Gavin.


  10. That’s an excellent suggestion!

    Just thought of another, perhaps Gavin could eat his meals such that dinner portions need not be too large at dinner time i.e. dinner portions are snacks portion after his meal at his own dinner time so that if you feel some pressure from your ILs, you could justify that he in fact ate quite well prior to the dinner snack.


  11. Vivian – no offense taken. I welcome the advice and thank you for being so open and honest with me. You are right – dinner time is stressful and I am sure Gavin is not oblivious of the fact. It is one of the downsides of living with the grandparents – so nothing we can do about that.

    I’ve never really thought he would notice hubby’s food pickiness but then against, he’s noticed a lot of other things I thought he might have missed so it wouldn’t be a surprise.

    I do hope Gareth will be a positive influence but am not willing to hedge my bets on it until I’ve seen Gareth eat solids. If Gareth ends up like Gavin with his food, I think I might have to go shoot myself.

    MieVee – good plan. I should try to implement that. Gavin will still have to have something – like a light snack – during the real dinner time with the rest of the family because eating together is very important to my ILs. They don’t like it when someone is late home and misses dinner. It’s a good rule, but I think stressful on the person who can’t make dinner (especially these days with working extra hours and all).

    Oh yes, I’ve also come to realise that Gavin can eat quickly and heartily when he wants to. I brought him bread and a packet of milk when I picked him up from school – he woofed down three bread rolls and the whole packet of milk in the blink of an eye. When it came to dinner time, it was the same old story – he chewed a very small piece of meat and looked like he was struggling to swallow it, then spat it out. When I gave him another very small piece of meat, he vomited. He refused to touch the white rice we specially made for him and drank the soup only after a lot of howling and protest.


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